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Stories that defined the decade in New Mexico

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

In the 10 years from 2010 through 2019, New Mexico experienced the good, the bad and the deeply disturbing and ugly. Ten major stories spanning that decade tell of promise, prosperity and politics, devastation and divisiveness, the coolly imaginative and the unimaginably cruel. Here’s a look back.

APD REFORM

In March 2014, Albuquerque Police Department officers shot and killed James Boyd, who had been camping illegally in the Sandia foothills. Boyd was homeless and has been described by authorities as schizophrenic. Helmet video that showed Boyd gathering his belongings before officers fired on him went viral, touching off angry protests around Albuquerque an d the country.

Soon after Boyd’s killing, the Department of Justice released the results of a yearslong review that ripped APD’s use of force and handling of mentally ill suspects. It led to a court-ordered and ongoing DOJ review of APD practices and policies.

In his 10th report, made public in November 2019, independent monitor James Ginger wrote that for the first time, APD had produced policies implementing all the procedures of a court -approved settlement agreement with DOJ. The report noted that APD still has a way to go in training officers on those procedures and even further to go in making sure officers and supervisors are adhering to them.

So far in 2019, APD officers have been involved in eight shootings, four of them fatal.

BORDER ISSUES

In a shift from 2000, when Mexican immigrants accounted for 98% of people crossing the border into the U.S., by the end of 2019 non-Mexicans accounted for more than two-thirds of those apprehended at the border.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Central America and growing numbers from countries such as Brazil and Cuba flooded across the U.S. border into New Mexico seeking asylum from government corruption, poverty and drug violence. Many were families and unaccompanied minors. It strained communities along the border as Border Patrol began releasing asylum-seekers in those communities.

The sheer numbers overtaxed Border Patrol agents and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, leading to sometimes tragic consequences. A 33-year-old transgender woman from Honduras became ill and died in an Albuquerque hospital in May 2018, while in custody and awaiting deportation. In December 2018, an 8-year-old Guatemalan boy took ill while in federal custody and died in an Alamogordo hospital.

Immigrant advocates protested what they consider inhumane treatment of asylum-seekers and President Donald Trump’s proposed border wall continued to stir up both support and opposition among New Mexico residents. Most recently, Mexican migrants have again outnumbered those from other places, and are now residing in camps on the Mexican side of the line as they wait their turn to apply for refuge in America under a metering system not previously applied to residents of Mexico.

FOREST FIRES

It was a bad decade for wildfires.

New Mexico’s largest forest fire of all time, the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in the Gila National Forest, was started by lightning in May 2012 and burned well into July, blackening 297,845 acres and destroying more than a dozen homes. A downed power line touched off the Las Conchas Fire, which started on June 26, 2011, near Los Alamos in the Santa Fe National Forest and burned for more than a month, charring 156,593 acres and destroying 63 homes and 49 other structures.

The Silver Fire, ignited by lightning on June 7, 2013, near Silver City in the Gila National Forest, burned 138,546 acres, and the Donaldson Fire, which was touched off by lightning on June 28, 2011, near Hondo in Lincoln County, burned 101,563 acres over several weeks. The Little Bear Fire, ignited by lightning on June 4, 2012, near Ruidoso in the Lincoln National Forest, burned 44,330 acres and destroyed 242 homes and numerous other buildings.

FILM, TV INDUSTRY

It was a lights, camera, action-action-action decade for New Mexico. Principal photography for the blockbuster Marvel Studios movie “The Avengers” started in Albuquerque on April 2011, and filming of the fifth and final season of “Breaking Bad,” one of the most watched cable shows in American TV history, commenced here in March 2012.

In October 2018, Netflix, the online streaming service giant, announced it was purchasing Albuquerque Studios to make it a hub for film production, and, according to the New Mexico State Film Office, a record $525.5 million of film industry money went into the state’s economy in fiscal year 2019. The State Film Office reported that during FY19 – July 1, 2018, through June 30, 2019 – 73 projects, 43 of which had a budget of $1 million or more, were filmed in New Mexico.

Senate Bill 2, which went into effect on July 1, 2019, raised the cap on incentives paid to film and TV productions from $50 million to $110 million, promising to make the state even more attractive to the entertainment industry.

FIRST FEMALE GOVERNOR

In 2010, Susana Martinez, a Republican, became the first woman to be elected governor of New Mexico and the first Hispanic female governor in the United States. Martinez, a native of El Paso, served as district attorney for New Mexico’s 3rd Judicial District from Jan. 1, 1997, until she assumed the Governor’s Office on Jan. 1, 2011.

Martinez took 53% of the vote to defeat Democrat Diane Denish, New Mexico’s incumbent lieutenant governor, in the 2010 gubernatorial race. Four years later, she won reelection with 57% of the vote, defeating Democrat Gary King, the state’s attorney general.

As governor, Martinez pushed for and signed into law a bill requiring law enforcement to obtain DNA samples from suspects booked on felony charges and signed an executive order rescinding sanctuary status for illegal immigrants who commit crimes in New Mexico. It was her administration that cut off Medicaid funding to the behavioral health providers alleged to have committed fraud and overbilling. Subsequent investigations found no intentional pattern of fraud among the companies, some of which had been forced out of business by the loss of the funds.

Martinez was succeeded in office by another woman, current Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office in January after easily defeating Republican Steve Pearce in the November 2018 general election.

HORRIFIC CRIME

The worst New Mexico crimes of the decade were the killing of young children.

Omaree Varela, 9, was kicked to death by his mother in Albuquerque in December 2013; 11-year-old Ashlynne Mike was murdered by a stranger in Shiprock in May 2016; 5-year-old Sarah Dubois-Gilbeau died at an Albuquerque hospital in April 2019, after she was allegedly beaten by her father for not doing her homework.

There were others, the most disturbing of which was the August 2016 killing of 10-year-old Victoria Martens, whose body was found dismembered and burning in a bathtub in her mother’s Albuquerque apartment. The child’s mother pleaded guilty to child abuse recklessly caused resulting in death, the mother’s boyfriend is awaiting trial on charges of child abuse resulting in death and tampering with evidence and the boyfriend’s cousin pleaded no contest to child abuse recklessly caused resulting in death, tampering with evidence and aggravated assault.

But police are still searching for a mysterious John Doe they believe actually killed the little girl.

DA VINCI, MEOW WOLF AND MORE

Even 500 years after his death, artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci remains capable of amazing feats. “Da Vinci – The Genius,” a spectacular exhibit at Albuquerque’s Museum of Natural History and Science in 2018 is credited with increasing the museum’s attendance by 59% (117,130 persons) and its revenue by 121% to a total of $1.6 million for Fiscal Year 2018.

A 24% increase in attendance at the ABQ BioPark Zoo this year is being attributed to the more than 30 sub-Antarctic penguins that are the stars of the zoo’s $18 million Penguin Chill exhibit, which opened in July 2019.

Other attractions entertaining and enlightening New Mexicans and visitors to the state this past decade include “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition,” a 2013 display at the Museum of Natural History and Science that looked back at the 1912 sinking of the British passenger liner, and “Visions of the Hispanic World,” 3,000 years worth of Iberian Peninsula art and culture on exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum in late 2018 and early 2019.

And then there’s Meow Wolf, a pop-cultural phenomenon featuring innovative, interactive exhibits at its complex that opened in Santa Fe in March 2016. By July 2018, 1 million visitors had ventured into the “House of Eternal Return” exhibit, making Meow Wolf a prominent tourist draw in a city of many such attractions.

OIL AND GAS BOOM

A record resurgence in oil and gas exploration in the Permian Basin of Eddy and Lea counties in southeast New Mexico since late 2016 has been pumping much-needed tax revenue monies into the state coffers. Multiple proposals for how best to use that extra money will be considered in the 2020 legislative session.

In one recent month, oil production hit 29 million barrels, more than twice the number of barrels produced two years before that. But all that bounty has put some strain on the communities in the middle of it. Trucks serving the industry are mangling state and federal highways and contributing to maddening traffic jams and an increase in traffic fatalities. A massive influx of oil and gas workers has ballooned town populations, creating a shortage of housing, teachers and education facilities and skyrocketing the costs for rent and motel rooms. And because oil field workers make top dollar, the boom has also caused a labor shortage in other areas.

Cooperative agreements between state and local governments and private companies are being pursued to find the best ways to use the gas and oil windfall to fuel solutions to challenges created by the boom.

A BLUER STATE

Once considered a swing state in presidential elections, New Mexico has steadily taken on a bluer hue over the last decade.

In the 2018 general election, Democrats swept all statewide offices on the ballot and posted victories in all three congressional districts, including the southern New Mexico-based 2nd Congressional District. Democrats have also expanded their majorities in both the New Mexico Senate and House of Representatives in recent years, after a GOP takeover of the House in 2016 that lasted for just two years.

While a Republican presidential candidate has not won New Mexico since George W. Bush did so in 2004, President Donald Trump has held rallies in the state – both before and after being elected – in an attempt to buck the conventional wisdom and win New Mexico’s five electoral votes. But his May 2016 rally in downtown Albuquerque was met with widespread protests that devolved into rioting as the night went on. Trump eventually lost New Mexico by 8 percentage points that year to Democrat Hillary Clinton.

VIRGIN GALACTIC

As the decade comes to a close, New Mexico remains a front-runner to become the first major commercial leaping-off point to the final frontier. The space tourism company Virgin Galactic, founded in 2004 by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson, is the anchor tenant at the $218.5 million New Mexico-taxpayer-funded Spaceport America facility near Truth or Consequences.

Virgin Galactic’s mission is to provide suborbital space flights to paying customers and top officials are talking about 2020 as the year it happens. More than 600 customers from 60 countries have bought tickets at $250,000 each.

The company has overcome a major setback in October 2014 when its spaceship broke up during a rocket-powered test flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one crew member and badly injuring another.

But a new spaceship, the VSS Unity, has made two successful test flights to space within the last year; the company opened a three-story, futuristic operations center at Spaceport America in summer 2019; and Virgin Galactic’s mother ship, VMS Eve, which will cart Unity part way to space, has been making test flights over the southern New Mexico desert.

Half a dozen firms currently operate at the $220 million Spaceport America facility, the latest being California-based SpinLaunch Inc., which has developed a novel centrifuge system that rapidly spins a vehicle around on the ground until it reaches hypersonic speeds. It then releases the rocket like a catapult to hurl to the edge of space.

Spaceport America CEO Dan Hicks said in mid-2019 that agreements were under discussion with about 30 different companies that are looking at the spaceport.

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